The feast hosted on Sunday by Ariel Sharon - for himself and the 39 members of his Knesset faction - was one of the most shameful spectacles beheld since he entered office. It was a spectacle that, along with other signs, foretold the impending end of his government.
The main party of the coalition and the commanders-in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces continued to enjoy themselves at a festive political bash, only minutes after three soldiers of the Duchifat unit were killed in an ambush in the village of Ein Yabrud. None of those present - not the prime minister, not Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, nor any other cabinet minister or member of Knesset - even dared to suggest that the get-together ought to be held over to a more propitious date out of respect for those who fell in the line of duty, having been sent by them - the senior political echelon. Eat and drink, for someone else is dying.
This is but one recent and especially blatant example of a phenomenon characteristic of the darkening autumn of Ariel Sharon - the ravenous political hunger and the alienation from the mainstream of Israel, which is so concerned about the well-being of its soldiers, works hard for its livelihood and to pay its taxes, and is apt to be unexpectedly snatched away into the army reserves. All eyes are fixed on a certain target date, a week from now, and to the obscure but nevertheless impending date, the first day of the post-Sharon era.
Circled in the calendar is October 28, when elections for the local councils are being held. At that time, it will be decided who will wax and who will wane - in the name of the Likud and within the Likud - and what effect all this will have on the balance of forces in the party's highest echelons. In this struggle, everything is on the line. Those courting Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, for instance, with hopes of netting a prestigious ambassadorship or, at the very least, a juicy consulate, are being asked to wait for an assignment until after the Likud's expected falter in the municipal races.
Brigadier General (ret.) Ran Pecker, who grew up in the Labor movement but has been a Likud campaigner ever since he got it into his mind to be dispatched to Los Angeles as the consul general, will soon succumb to the entreaties that he cast away the sorrows of Queen Elizabeth II and be appointed ambassador in London; but Pecker has no legions in the Likud Central Committee, and some vanquished mayor will most certainly be elbowing ahead of him in line.
Shalom will compete with Benjamin Netanyahu over leadership of the Likud after Sharon; he cannot give up without a fight - at least overtly; although behind the scenes, he will strive for an alliance with Netanyahu and for the second most important post in the Netanyahu government, perhaps defense, as long as the Labor Party remains outside the coalition. This portfolio is now being held in the tightly clenched fist of Shaul Mofaz.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when he raised a toast with the army's General Staff, Mofaz astounded the chief of staff and the generals when he remarked, toward the end, that he would be deciding this month which of them to assign to which new posting. The off-the-cuff nature of the statement, his easy familiarity with many of the individuals, and the announcement that "my door is open" to those seeking promotion was embarrassing to Moshe Ya'alon, who is tired of playing the eternal second fiddle to Mofaz. The subtitle of this particular film read: I am the boss (and aspire to be the boss of bosses).
Mofaz's words came at the height of escalating tension between him and Ya'alon, who has tried to fulfill Sharon's instructions, in spirit and in deeds, following the war in Iraq, the diplomatic coordination with President Bush, and the accession of the Mahmoud Abbas government - to promote dialogue with moderate Palestinians and grant freer passage and financial relief to the "good" population, hand in hand with the war against the "bad" terror.
The strategy trickling down from above butts up against Mofaz's rigid refusal to approve soft tactical steps proposed by the army. Mofaz, IDF sources charge, is the cause of despair to both Palestinians and Israelis, in their civilian lives and in their lives as accidental reservists.
Mofaz, who also heads the ministerial committee on reserve duty, has demonstratively disregarded proposals tabled by Uzi Dayan, whom he has marked as an enemy, that would improve the attitude toward reserve duty and accelerate construction of the fence, which will reduce the drag of having to call up reserve battalions. In so doing, he reveals what he thinks of Likudniks - eager to flash the iron-fisted image, foolish when it comes to the territories, and not prone to show up in droves for reserve duty.
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